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‘Life,’ by Keith RichardsBY: Bob Ingram 01.29.2011
The Rolling Stones’ infamous guitarist/songwriter Keith Richards may have been a junkie, but I’ve never been so completely taken by a person through his writing.
Life. By Keith Richards with James Fox. Little, Brown and Company, 2010. 564 pages; $29.99. www.amazon.com.
Music trumps heroin:
From their formation in 1962, the Rolling Stones transmuted the long history of blues music into a powerful synthesis that took rock and roll to heights and depths unmatched by any other performer, Elvis and the Beatles included. Now the Stones’ infamous guitarist/songwriter Keith Richards, the all-time poster boy for rock and roll excess and decadence, has written a memoir as commanding and accessible as the music that made him and his bandmates rich and famous.
I’ve never been so completely taken by a person through his writing– except perhaps Thomas Merton, a different kind of rocker.
Richards leaves his human imprint on every page. His voice is distinctive: casual, incisive, humorous, ironic. Here is a very sophisticated intelligence telling a spellbinding cultural story in a disarmingly unpretentious vernacular. Witness this passage:
“The human body will feel rhythms even when there’s not one. Listen to ‘Mystery Train’ by Elvis Pressley. One of the great rock-and-roll tracks of all time, not a drum on it. It’s just a suggestion, because the body will provide the rhythm. Rhythm really has to be only suggested. Doesn’t have to be pronounced. This is where they got it wrong with ‘this rock’ and ‘that roll.’ It’s got nothing to do with rock. It’s to do with roll.”
Life is a rock and roll fairy tale: A young man from a working-class London background, dedicated to playing American blues, finds like-minded collaborators and, through hard work, pluck and the confluence of the times and astounding luck, finds himself successful beyond his wildest dreams, drenched with the fortune and renown that are actually the Aristotelian ingredients for tragedy– providing the protagonist brings himself down by a fatal choice or action.
Richards’s near-tragic choice was a ten-year heroin addiction. But it wasn’t a fatal flaw because of Richards’s basic, over-riding passion and respect for his music. Confessed junkie or no, he toed the musical mark every step of the way: He made the gigs, collaborated with Mick Jagger on the songwriting, and cut the albums, all while teetering precariously on the back of that relentless white horse.
If there’s such a thing as a disciplined dope addict, it was Keith Richards— who, incidentally, says he hasn’t had a taste in 30 years. According to Richards, he used heroin as a tool– if nine-day sleepless song-writing binges qualify– as well as an escape, and never took that one more hit that can mean DOA/OD.
But being a celebrity junkie exacted a heavy cost for Richards and his family: endless police surveillance and busts, crazy court trials, expatriation, sensational headlines. For ten straight years he was Number One on the list of rock musicians likely to die that year.
As sordid as Richards’ straightforward recounting of his career as a heroin addict may be, many of the passages devoted to music in Life are sublime. Some passages constitute guitar master classes, like this one:
As for songwriting, try this:
“The radar is on whether you know it or not. You cannot switch it off. You hear this piece of conversation from across the room, ‘I just cannot stand you any more’ … That’s a song. It just flows in.
“And also the other thing about being a songwriter, when you realize you are one, is that to provide ammo, you start to become an observer, you start to distance yourself. You’re constantly on the alert. That faculty gets trained in you over the years, observing people, how they react to one another. Which, in a way, makes you weirdly distant. You shouldn’t really be doing it. It’s a little of Peeping Tom to be a songwriter.”
Life also answers a fan’s eternal question: What are these stars really like? Richards spares little in his descriptions and opinions. John Lennon was a drug and booze lightweight who leaves Richards’s social get-togethers in a “horizontal” position. The Stones’ co-founder Brian Jones was “a whining son of a bitch”; the other co-founder, the illustrious Mick Jagger, is a control freak with delusions of grandeur and “a head so big it wouldn’t fit through the door.” Yet this verdict is delivered with the all-in-the-family tone of one brother reluctantly chiding another.
Even celebrity hangouts get the Richards treatment: “Studio 54 in New York was a big hangout of Mick’s. It wasn’t my taste– a tarted-up disco club or, as it appeared to me at the time, a room full of faggots in boxer shorts, waving champagne bottles in your face.”
Richards chased the music harder than any other of the Rolling Stones. One of his first loves was Ronnie Bennett– later Ronnie Spector – of the Ronettes. He hung in Jamaica with reggae legends Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar, jamming all the while. He played with the rock and roll star Chuck Berry, his all-time idol, who turned out to be a bit of cheapskate, but still musically praiseworthy. He saw the country blues/rock genius of his heroin partner, Gram Parsons, and in one of the book’s memorable lines, he ends a paragraph describing Parsons’ hold on the human heartstrings: “My feet were soaking from walking through tears.”
And – guess what?– in 1979 Richards married Patti Hansen, maybe the most beautiful girl in his world of unlimited beautiful girls, and they had two kids and appear to be living happily ever after.♦
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